Herbal Preparations: some helpful terminology

I often get puzzled looks when I use the word “tincture” or describe an infusion of herbs.  What is an elixir versus a tonic?  Why do we extract in alcohol?  So I thought I would define a few terms commonly used in herbal medicine.

TEA: First, let’s talk about “tea”, since it is a familiar word and concept that people can understand.  Technically, a “tea” is only made from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, which brings us white tea, green tea, black tea, oolong tea, bancha, pu-erh tea, and all the varieties within that.  This tea plant, Camellia sinensis, contains caffeine.  Pause.  Did you know that all of these teas come from the same plant??  Pretty cool.  Each type of tea is processed differently to bring out different flavors and properties.  For example, white tea is the least processed and lowest in caffeine of all these teas.  Depending on subspecies and where this plant is cultivated and the climate it is bred to grow in, you get an incredible diversity of flavors and aromas in teas.

TEA vs. INFUSION or TISANE: Okay, so, herbal “teas” are really herbal aqueous (water) infusions or tisanes, but now we just refer to any plant infused/steeped in hot water as a tea.  So if you ever are confused, hopefully this just added to the confusion!  By “infused” or “steeped”, we are referring to the plant material sitting in hot water, its properties getting extracted into the water.  I will refer to all plant water infusions as teas from now on.

Let’s continue then.  Some plants and the desired constituents in those plants are most active and available prepared as a water infusion, because the compounds are water soluble (hydrophilic).  These are best prepared and taken as a tea.

TINCTURES: Some plants contain desired compounds that tend to be more alcohol or oil soluble (they are more hydrophobic) and tend not to be water soluble, or poorly so.  These would preferably be consumed as a tincture, then, which is an extract of fresh or dry plant in an alcohol & water solution.  Something like lomatium root (Lomatium dissectum), which is oozing with resins and volatile oils when harvested fresh, is best prepared in a high-alcohol preparation then in order to capture some of these resins and oils in the solution, since these have many of the antibacterial, antiviral, and decongestant effects that lomatium can offer.

Can plants/herbs with water soluble compounds be extracted as a tincture?  Yes, they can!  These would just contain a lower alcohol percentage to water (say 40% alcohol content), therefore preserving the preparation while extracting both water soluble and some alcohol soluble compounds.

Tinctures are often desirable because they are a concentrated herbal extract that is taken in drop doses.  The added advantage is that the fresh plant can be extracted into the solution and then it is preserved for potentially years once the plant material has been pressed out and the liquid (tincture) is stored.

GLYCERITES: These are herbal extracts in vegetable glycerine, another solvent used to extract both water and alcohol-soluble compounds from plants.  There are generally not as many herbal glycerites available on the market.  Glycerine is a sweet, viscous bi-product of the soap-making industry and can extract some hydrophilic (water soluble) and hydrophobic (alcohol soluble) compounds from the plant.  Another advantage is that they are sweet-tasting extracts and because they contain no alcohol, they are great for kids and anyone averse to taking alcohol-containing substances (or anyone who should not, for that matter).

HERBAL OILS: One way to prepare herbs for topical use is to infuse (there’s that word again) herbs in oil so that the properties of the plant can be extracted into the oil.  Basically this means covering fresh or dried herbs with oil and allowing them to sit in the oil for a length of time and then pressing out the plant material.  The oil then can be used directly on the skin, or used in a lotion or salve.

SALVES: What the heck is a salve, anyway?  Pronounced “saav” (like “have” with an “s”; silent “l”), this is essentially a wax-thickened oil, and is basically what a lip balm is.  Beeswax or other emulsifying vegetable waxes are usually used to thicken/harden the oil so it can be spread on the skin.

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